It was reported last night by ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler that the Pittsburgh Steelers applied a restricted free agent tender on offensive lineman Chris Hubbard, preventing him from hitting free agency. They gave him an original-round tender, which, as a former undrafted free agent, merely gives them the right of first refusal should another team attempt to sign him, although with a price tag of a tick or two below $2 million, that is probably a fairly small risk.
Hubbard has been quite a hard sell for many fans over the course of the past year, as the negative memories seem easier to hold on to than the positive ones. The former UAB product struggled mightily in the preseason during the 2015 season, after which I predicted incorrectly that he would not make the 53-man roster again.
He did, and he played better that year as an extra lineman.
Hubbard met with mixed success during the 2016 preseason as the Steelers moved him all around the offensive line, particularly trying to give him a good amount of work at left tackle, which is probably the position at which he has been given the least amount of experience since being in the NFL.
But when he was called upon to fill in for starter Marcus Gilbert at right tackle for three games during the 2016 season, he played ‘above the line’ and then some. Despite the fact that the team lost two of the three games that he started—the game in which Ben Roethlisberger was injured and the game that he missed due to the injury—the offensive line more than held its own with him in the lineup.
Following Gilbert’s return to the lineup, the Steelers chose to continue to deploy him as an additional lineman, something that they had done in the year prior, only they elected to do it far more frequently. At its height, the team was using an additional lineman at around a quarter of all of their offensive snaps, which is quite a bit considering how prolific the 11 set is today with three wide receivers on the field.
His opportunity to start only came about—at least initially—due to the fact that veteran free agent signing Ryan Harris was also injured in the same game in which Gilbert went down. If you factor in the injury to rookie Jerald Hawkins, one can argue that Hubbard was the fourth-string tackle.
I believe any fair analysis of his performance in 2016 would conclude that he played above the level of expectation for him, and I feel that he was deserving of receiving the restricted free agent tender, although I hasten to add that it is not binding.
Now that he is under contract, however, it could be interesting to see how the offensive line situation unfolds. It could be that only one of Hubbard or Harris make the 53-man roster, although as we sit here in March the safest assumption is probably that they both make it. If Brian Mihalik proves to be a player worth keeping, however…